(Edmonton) A recent PhD graduate whose key work was done in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta received a prestigious award from the Canadian Association for Graduate Studies for his research that suggests a specific type of mutant poxvirus could be used to treat cancer.
The national organization hands out only two awards each year honouring distinguished dissertations from graduate students who make unusually significant contributions to their field of study.
Don Gammon and his colleagues worked in the lab of David Evans, chair of the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. In the course of their work on poxviruses, the researchers discovered that a specific mutant poxvirus could be effective in treating cancer because the virus replicates only in cancerous cells, not healthy cells. The team has already filed a patent on the discovery.
�If a patient had a malignant tumour that spread throughout the body, possibly these viruses would be able to replicate in a tumour in one part of the body, eliminate that tumour, then spread from that tumour through the bloodstream to another tumour site and kill that tumour as well. That is the ultimate goal in general.
Next generation of medicine
�There are already other mutant poxviruses in human clinical trials for treating human cancers. This is the next generation of medicine.�
Another finding the researchers made was to identify how poxviruses become resistant to a certain class of drugs. The researchers also found that these specific drugs could still be very effective in treating poxvirus infections since the resistant virus strains were weak and still responded to the medication. Gammon believes the drugs will one day become mainstream treatments for poxvirus infections.
Gammon and his colleagues made a third discovery about how poxviruses function that could allow drug companies to target the unique process and develop a new drug treatment. The virus fixes DNA breaks differently than the human body or any other virus or organism, which is a good thing. If the human body or host fixes DNA breaks the same way as a virus, then drug treatment can�t be administered because it would kill both the virus and the patient or host.
Gammon reported three major virology-related discoveries in his dissertation, all of which were published. The discoveries appeared in the Journal ofVirology, Public Library of Science (PLoS) and Pathogens. Gammon and his collaborators initially set out to discover how a specific poxvirus develops resistance to certain types of drugs. Right now, there are no approved drug treatments for human pox infection.
�Poxviruses are on the radar of bio defense,� says Gammon, 28, whose specialization in virology, explaining one reason why researchers are interested in poxviruses. �There is increasing concern that there are potential stockpiles of small poxvirus in the hands of bio-terror groups or that other types of poxviruses could be used in terrorism. Some poxviruses tend to transmit fairly well between human beings and often cause very severe, acute disease.�
Gammon is humble about his achievements and noted the important contribution of all his teammates and contributors, including his supervisor, Evans, and Graciela Andrei of the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Belgium.
�I don�t think any scientist does something alone,� Gammon says. �There were a lot of people who were instrumental in this research, particularly my supervisor David Evans, who built expertise in pox research over the past 25 years. He was a wonderful supervisor�very encouraging, very supportive, always challenging me and the other students.
�[The Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry] was a great graduate program. I was fortunate enough to be in a great training environment. This work wouldn�t have gone as far if I hadn�t been in such a wonderful, collaborative community.�
Evans noted Gammon is very deserving of the award.
�I have been very fortunate to supervise a lot of really good students and Don was certainly one of them. He accomplished a lot of work and I�m pleased to see he is continuing a successful career as a post-doc in Massachusetts.�
Gammon is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts medical school. He is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions. Gammon received his award in Toronto on Wednesday, Nov. 3.